The 4 years of medical school can shape you in ways you can never imagine. You will learn so much about yourself. You will push yourself to new limits. New lifelong friendships will blossom. You will be awake while the rest of the world sleeps and experience things few people will ever encounter. Many will face some of their toughest days emotionally and physically but these will be countered by the joy one can only get from assisting in saving a life or bringing life into the world. These 4 years will go by fast but memories will last the rest of your life. As I drove to work the other day, I was reminiscing on some memorable and pivotal medical school experiences:
1. First Day of School
My summer mood full of anticipation and excitement quickly turned to anxiety and self-doubt the day before med school orientation. How could this be? I had always been fairly confident in my ability to excel and by this time I was clearly a bonafide, professional student. Could it be that I was falling prey to the imposter syndrome? I most certainly was. I struggled to sleep that night imagining a class full of Doogie Howsers and Mark Zuckerbergs dressed in khakis and bow-ties. They were all telling stories of how they were wait-listed at Harvard and Yale.
I never asked other medical students but I probably wasn’t the only one who failed to sleep that night. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised as I walked into the UTMB’s Old Red amphitheater to find a diverse class of mostly laid back students smiling and chatting with one another like normal people would. Half of them looked like they had been in fraternities and sororities. The biggest shock came when an old basketball buddy of mine from college walked in. He played college basketball at a neighboring college and I felt like he and I lived in the gym. We both smiled and simultaneously said, “You’re in medical school!?!”
This day thought me not to judge a book by its cover and I quickly began to believe in myself again. Med students are a bunch of well-rounded, cool folks.
2. USMLE Step 1 Exam
This by far was the hardest test of my life. I can best describe this 1-2 months of studying as being in the trenches with my med school comrades. You just have to experience it yourself. This test is what stands in the way of you attending the residency of your choice at your choice program. In most medical schools this test is taken at the end of your second year. You eat, breath, sleep with your First Aid study book. I literally read this book 5 times and left very few pages with any white space left. Till this day, I hear certain diseases and my mind immediately rushes back to a page in that book. My day consisted of waking up at 6:30am by accountability partner’s phone call, getting ready and rushing to my favorite study room before it was occupied. I would stay in that room until midnight except for a quick 30-minute lunch break and a dinner/gym break. Practice test after practice test. I pretty much was surrounded by classmates all cramming as much as they could. At times, hallways were lined with coffee drinking zombies reciting mnemonic after mnemonic. Despite this dark picture, somehow this became fun and strong bonds were created between classmates. This was life for us but in the end, the studying paid off for most of us.
Step 1 taught me that I could always push a mile further than I originally thought especially with an accountability buddy by my side.
3. Orthopedics Rotation
I had finally begun my 3rd year of medical school. These were the clinical years and I was starting out with one of my highly anticipated rotations, Orthopedic Surgery. Woohoo! Let the fun begin. I thoroughly enjoyed this rotation but quickly learned surgery was not for me. I certainly was not a fan of the sterile fields which kept me on my toes all day dodging anything that could cause me to be contaminated. I typically woke up around 4 or 5 am in order to pre-round on my patients and run questions by the intern. Room-to-room, floor-to-floor, I quickly collected vital signs and constructed a SOAP note. We would round with our team typically consisting of 2 or 3 medical students, 1 or 2 interns, a chief resident, and an attending. Interns typically presented the cases unless the attending had time before the first surgical case and wanted the med student to get some practice presenting. Occasionally, the attending would “pimp” us (i.e. ask us medical questions). There was an art to responding to the pimping. See, as a third-year medical student coming fresh out of Step 1 studies, this may be the most medically knowledgeable you will ever be. However, you must know how to tame yourself and allow the intern (who may have forgotten some of the basic sciences) to answer first. It is never good to make your intern or resident look bad and I saw a number of med students do just that. My most memorable day was one I spent 8 hours in the OR assisting on a complicated infected hip case. As the only medical student there I was “lucky” enough to hold the patient’s leg on my hip, rotating, flexing, extending, abducting and adducting this joint. Somehow, my residents got contaminated and had to leave the case for some time only to come back smelling like pizza. The quiet medical student (me) on the other hand stood there for 8 hours without a drop of water or bite to eat. Times were hard.
My clinical years thought me that knowledge does not equate to wisdom. One must weed out the zebras and know how to apply what they’ve learned practically. Stay humble and soak in as much as you can.
4. Trauma Call
Everyone knows that the call room bed is the most treasured destination while on trauma call. Every chance you get to catch some Z’s you must take it. Your favorite words to hear from the resident is, “Ya’ll can go rest now.” I recall sleeping one early morning and getting a page at 2 am. It read, “GSW, ETA 15 min” (gunshot wound, estimated time of arrival 15 minutes). Waking up from interrupted sleep can be rough at times. I recall waking up very groggy and grouchy. I had received very little sleep that week and was attempting to study for the shelf exam. Myself and the other medical student rushed down the stairs half asleep to a silent trauma bay with trauma shears in hand, awaiting the patient’s arrival. Its the calm before the storm they say. Right on time, the paramedics rolled in the patient. I was shocked to see a 25-year-old, African American male who resembled me. We must’ve been nearly the same height, body frame, and even skin complexion. The world froze for a second as we locked eyes and the young man in visible pain pleaded with me to help him out. My perspective on life changed that day as I helped take care of that young man. A few minutes before I was sleep deprived and complaining about the pager and now I was helping save the life of this gentleman. I couldn’t help but think this easily could’ve been me if I had made different choices in life. It turns out he didn’t live too far from where I grew up. After he was loaded with pain medication, the patient finally was at ease. It turned out the bullet had hit his spine and rendered him paraplegic. I got to learn more from this young man as I wheeled him back and forth between CT and X-ray. It turns out he was shot during a possible gang affiliated drive by. He had dreams and aspirations to be something great. He was ashamed to let his 3-year-old son see him in this condition but at the same time this child was his motivation for living.
Trauma call thought me that altruism is essential if one wants to be the best healer they can be. I learned to be grateful because when I think I’m having a bad day, someone out there has it much worse and would love to trade places.
5. Match Day
The most anticipated day of medical school is match day. This is a day full of celebration, gratitude, picture taking, and farewells. This is the day you find out where you will be going for your residency. The auditorium was filled with students, teachers, friends, and families. Our dean stood on stage with others from the advisory office. They had laughed, cried, and celebrated with us over the 4 years. A class video with students performing a parody of Grey’s Anatomy was played on the screen for all to see. This was very embarrassing as I still don’t know how they got me to say yes to acting. Student names were drawn from a hat one-by-one and we each ran to the stage like the prize is right to receive our envelope. We took these envelopes back to our seats and opened them with anxious loved ones by our side. Every few seconds a scream could be heard as someone must have matched to their program of choice. Some couples entered into a couple’s match and were delighted to hear they would be training together at the same program or at least in the same city. It was a magical moment. Simply magical. We had done it! We had conquered the beast that is called medical school.
Many premeds shadow physicians but do not get the opportunity to sample what medical school is really like. I’m curious to hear what you feel medical school will be like. Are you anxious or excited? Do you have any questions about medical school in general?
A video I highly encourage all premeds to watch is Med School Diaries. It does an amazing job chronicling students through the first day of school all the way into their residency and finally as full-fledged physicians. Check it out:
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